Archive for the ‘History’ Category

In the Hagakure, a book written by the samurai official Yamamoto Tsunetomo in the 17th-century, the author writes about the different characteristics of people that make up society. He points out that the most valuable person is the “kusemono.”

Translators of the Hagakure point out that the modern meaning of that term is that of a “ruffian” or an eccentric. So why was the kusemono so valuable? According to the Hagakure, a kusemono is a person who avoids trouble, keeps to themselves, and only appears when needed. Not unlike the solitary hero of samurai movies in the 1960’s, a kusemono eschews high honors and recognition and prefers to keep to their own devices until duty calls. Then, when the job is completed, they return to their solitary ways.

In short, a kusemono is like a friend.

Sisyphus

Posted: June 20, 2016 in Health & Fitness, History, Literature, Personal
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Le Myth de SisyphusAlbert Camus penned an exploration of the absurdity of life titled The Myth of Sisyphus. In it, Camus examined the essential absurdity of life (that we look forward to tomorrow even though tomorrow brings us closer to death).

One of the 4 chapters of the book covered the Greek myth of Sisyphus who was consigned to punishment in the underworld of rolling a boulder up a hill until, right before he reached the top, it rolled back down. Forcing him into a perpetual punishment of never completing his hellish task.

Camus essentially argued that, despite the unceasing toil, Sisyphus would actually be contented because he recognizes the absurdity of his fate and is thus able to reach a state of acceptance. This is similar to the theme found in many religions in which the acceptance of death is the precursor to satisfaction in that it removes all vanities so that one can focus on the joys of life.

Royal-Guercino-Sisyphus-1636We each need our mindless task, a continuing struggle that makes us confront our vanities and fears. This is not a call to sink into negativity but, rather, a call to action. Mine is kendo, specifically suburi and hayasuburi. In my daily practice each swing is done fully with as much as focus as I can muster until I can almost smell the wood of the shinai or bokken and the sound of the strike.

“The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

 

 

 

 

David Katz posted a poorly-edited and even more poorly-thought out essay in the Huffington Post. Worried amount the mounting evidence that his line of thinking is incorrect and responding to the success of Nina Teicholz’s new book, he posted his thoughts on Huff Po. Here are my initial thoughts to his screed but the comments section of the post is quite good as well: “So we might ask the question: if Atkins had the truth for us in the 1970s, why did we need a diet revolution in the 1990s? And if that revolution in the 1990s, which reached tens of millions in the early 2000s was really the answer — then why are we reacting to the same dietary déjà vu all over again in the Wall Street Journal as if it were some kind of epiphany?” Answer: while Atkins came about then, vested interests had a lock on information and legitimacy. Only in the 90’s, with the advent of the internet, were alternate ideas introduced en masse.

“We are flying in circles. If we had reduced our intake of meat, butter and cheese by eating more vegetables, nuts, fruits and legumes — we might be living in a Blue Zone by now. But we didn’t and we aren’t. We just started eating more starch and sugar.”  Answer: Exactly. It is the consumption of sugars and grains that accelerated the obesity epidemic. It is very telling that meat consumption did not increase but that obesity did. He ignores his own logic.
After all, if our meaty, cheesy, buttery diets had been making us lean, healthy and happy in the first place — why ever would we have changed them? Answer: It started with the Kellogg company, whose founder felt that sexual desire was a bad thing and saw a correlation between high energy sexual behavior and consumption of meat. To combat “immorality” (a major issue at that time and also the time of the suffrage movement and the start of Prohibition politics by the way) he introduced a line of grain-based products which, unsurprisingly reduced said activity. Kellogg is famous for claiming that he had no sexual desire on his wedding night (poor Mrs. Kellogg!). Fast forward to the post-war period, when agricultural companies had a surplus of grain products due to wartime over-production. They co-opted the government into making grain the bottom of the infamous food pyramid and that is when, from the 1950’s through the 1970’s, obesity and heart attacks began to skyrocket.
“And — I don’t have a diet to sell. In fact, I am on record as asserting that no single diet is best — and that an optimal diet can be low fat or high, include or exclude meat, be lower or higher in protein, and so on.” Answer: So then, why are you attacking a specific diet later on in the article? Do people even edit their thoughts before hitting the send button…?
Everyone hates being wrong but it is good for the soul when they ultimately recognize it. Hopefully the good doctor will be one of the lucky few.

2013 ShinsaAs a kendo practitioner I am attracted to the concept of being a “modern warrior” but I really don’t know what that means. The concept is seductive and empowering but mis-application can lead to ridicule and even injury.

Step one in exploring this concept is understanding what is a warrior. I completely agree with Wikipedia’s definition of the term “warrior.” It is a person dedicated to the art of war and who’s world view and personal behavior is bound and defined by a personal and philosophical code of honor which dictates his (or her’s) every action.

Definition of honor, in my mind, is the concept of a higher code of ethics and personal responsibility that exceeds the value of the life of the person. In effect, death should be less frightening than dishonor.

Are modern soldiers warriors? The term “warrior” is applied to soldiers in the US as a sign of respect, especially in light of the terrible treatment that Vietnam-era soldiers suffered at the hands of their citizens.

In reality, though, soldiers are not warriors. Their behavior is dictated by military policy that demands obedience over anything else. The reason is sensible and derives from the time of fixed-formation movement as far back as ancient times. A soldier cannot ignore an order even if it goes against his code of honor (though he can ignore an order that goes against military policy but that is not the same thing).

Are mercenaries warriors? They can pick and choose their fights and have more freedom than soldiers. I suppose that is possible but most mercenaries (or contract soldiers like those who protect ships from pirates or who work for military contractors) are usually fighting for money which is not something that appears in ethical or moral codes (unless there is an Ayn Rand-themed band of warriors that I don’t know about!).

I think the door has closed on the warrior concept being realized in current times but that doesn’t mean that we cannot take some of the higher concepts from the warrior codes and apply them to our lives, here and now.

Budo, the Japanese concept of the modern martial arts does this really well. A person can study martial arts (whether a budo practice like kendo or the actual science of swordsmanship like one of the traditional sword styles that do not have a sport application) and just taste some of the deeper concepts that once permeated the air of those ancient warriors.

In practice, one can choose to be just, treat others with dignity, and dedicate one’s life to a physical and mental practice that expands their view of themselves and the world around them.

It may be just a taste of a bygone age, but it can still be a sweet and satisfying one.

Poetry of Cao Cao

Posted: October 12, 2013 in History
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Reprinted from my nascent G+ blog:

The Chinese TV series, Three Kingdoms, is a great program and one of the best I’ve seen about this great historical story (more here about The Romance of the Three Kingdoms).

All of the actors were well-chosen for their characters and it is a real pleasure to watch them become these famous people of ancient history.

The character of Cao Cao is neither hero nor villain. He has conflicting sides to him, which makes him real. His poetry reflects that and I’ll leave you with this:

Though the Tortoise Lives Long (龜雖壽).

《龜雖壽》

Though the Tortoise Lives Long

神龜雖壽,猶有竟時。

Though the tortoise blessed with magic powers lives long,

Its days have their allotted span;

騰蛇乘霧,終為土灰。

Though winged serpents ride high on the mist,

They turn to dust and ashes at the last;

老驥伏櫪,志在千里;

An old war-horse may be stabled,

Yet still it longs to gallop a thousand li;

烈士暮年,壯心不已。

And a noble-hearted man though advanced in years

Never abandons his proud aspirations.

盈縮之期,不但在天;

Man’s span of life, whether long or short,

Depends not on Heaven alone;

養怡之福,可得永年。

One who eats well and keeps cheerful

Can live to a great old age.

幸甚至哉!歌以咏志。

And so, with joy in my heart,

I hum this song.

Roman Art: Sex & Violence

Posted: August 1, 2013 in Art, History
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Pan and Goat Priest and SonsThe BBC site ran an essay by Alistair Sooke, art critic for The Daily Telegraph newspaper. In it he detailed some of the art from ancient Rome that was shocking by modern standards as well as that of our Renaissance fore-bearers.

Some of the artworks were sexual in nature while others were violent. Frankly, I found his tone to be stiff and uptight, as if somehow our ancient ancestors were barbaric (though I think he purposely did this in order to create a false sense of surprise or outrage). Yet he also acknowledges that they were learned and, in the broadest sense, perhaps; civilized.

So why the apparent tension between shocking sexuality, violence and the existence of all of the trappings of civilization? I think the answer is that we humans have two hearts, beating at different paces. One is a slower, more careful, pace that allows us to build civilizations, create written languages, etc. The other is a darker, more passionate or base heartbeat. This is what drives our personal desires, inclinations to personal violence, sexuality, and even our dreams.

Our Roman ancestors, living in time where man interacted more closely with his neighbors (in cramped ancient cities) and with nature (in the vast forests and waterways of an undeveloped world), felt the tension of these “two hearts” and their art and literature reflected that.

Even now, we feel this too. Our desire for a brutal punishment for those who hurt children or revenge for a country that attacked us in war. Yet we also know that we cannot live in a dark world of passions. We also need the more rarefied air of compassion and philosophy that our Roman ancestors (and our ancestors in all parts of the world) also needed.

Our ancestors knew this and they wrote thoughtful poems, built societies based on law and vast cities; while also indulging themselves in the more base arts.

Timeless Time

Posted: July 25, 2013 in History, Personal, Technology

A 2011 interview with William Gibson got me thinking a little about the nature of time and perception. Gibson’s books (Neuromancer, The Difference Engine, and Count Zero) explore the impact of technology and alternate realities caused by technology on humans.

While often quite dystopian, his worlds raise his reader’s consciousness by essentially “hacking” what we would perceive as “normal” and offering potential alternatives in the form of worlds and people that struggle with the chaos and never-ending change wrought by technology and society.

In the course of my meditation on his work I was struck by his mention of how the steam engine shook people’s view of time and distance, causing widespread wonder and unease as centuries of accepted travel times and methods were overturned. Where once people traveled at an average pace of 2 miles per hour they now could be carried along at 15 miles per hour without doing anything other than purchasing a ticket.

Black Steam Train Meiji Train

This and subsequent improvements in engineering and technology dragged people closer together and accelerated the pace of human interactions. As a result, language become more streamlined, matching the new demands for communication to be as efficient as travel.

With the change in language and technology came a change in the sense of time and movement that people experienced. The “new normal” was a world with diminishing quiet spots and a sense of living in a linear, streamlined world, with an uncertain future.

Contrast that with a past that consisted of fixed traditions and technology where people were the benchmark, not machines. The subtleties of language and the importance of nuance in relationships were richer in the past because they had to be, since people relied upon each other instead of machines to produce the necessities of life. It was timeless time.

With this accelerated time that we live in, working longer hours with fewer rest periods, and with schedules that seem to expand but never contract; only the wealthy and those willing to give it all up have access to those quiet spots that once filled the globe.

To be sure, we live longer and healthier lives (though not by much and in some places, not anymore) but to what end? Are we able to control and enjoy the time that we have?